No, "Homeschooling" During the Coronavirus Will Not Set Back a Generation of Children

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File

Friday evening, as the work week wrapped up, I saw this tweet and rolled my eyes. Hard.

Hyperbole much? Set back an entire generation? As the mom of three boys who’ve all been homeschooled at various points in their educational careers, I fired off this tweet:

That tweet has produced more engagement than almost any other tweet I’ve sent in the many years I’ve visited the site. Hundreds of people assumed I was claiming that my child’s experience was representative of all homeschoolers and took issue with my generalization – while ignoring the WaPo writer’s massive generalization that an entire generation of children will be set back by four, eight, twelve weeks of not attending public schools.

Unfortunately (but not surprisingly), the headline, “Homeschooling during the coronavirus will set back a generation of children,” is misleading. The article is referring to online distance learning, led by teachers and administered by local school districts, during the time schools are closed to slow the spread of a pandemic, and focuses on a subset of students (the “most vulnerable”). It is not referring to what most people consider homeschooling.

Whether we’re discussing homeschooling or what’s essentially an online public school, writer Kevin Huffman’s conclusions are wrong – and that’s not just due to my experience.

Before addressing Huffman’s contentions, and to ensure that there’s no confusion, the following are some of my beliefs on the topic:

  • Not all homeschools are good.
  • Not all public schools are bad.
  • Regardless of where a child is educated, parental involvement is a major factor in educational success.
  • Regardless of where a child is educated, socioeconomic status is a factor in educational success.
  • Students have various learning styles, and should have access to a school/teacher that teaches in that way.

In the first paragraph, Huffman asserts:

“As the coronavirus pandemic closes schools…American children this month met their new English, math, science and homeroom teachers: their iPads and their parents.”

While parents are being called upon to, I don’t know, be parents during this trying time and set up a place for their children to learn, unless they’re already homeschool parents they’re not being asked to take the place of teachers. Based on my conversations with mom friends living all across the country over the last few weeks, for the most part public schools have transitioned to an online/distance learning model. The amount of parental involvement required will clearly depend upon the age and capabilities of the child, but it’s false to state that American students are now being taught by “their iPads and their parents.”

He states that online schooling is ineffective, results are lackluster, and evidence shows online schools perform poorly.

“Years of research shows that online schooling is ineffective.”

“[R]esearch shows that even with great planning, a willing audience and lots of effort from teachers well-schooled in distance learning, results for K-12 students are lackluster.

Writing in EdWeek on March 20, the author of one of two major studies on the effectiveness of online classes contradicts those conclusions. While available research does show that “in-person courses, in general, are more effective,” there’s a caveat:

“Only a little research has assessed the effects of online lessons for elementary and high school students, and even less has used the ‘gold standard’ method of comparing the results for students assigned randomly to online or in-person courses.”

The researcher also says that “[s]ome students do as well in online courses as in in-person courses, some may actually do better,” but that any obstacles a student faces in an in-person setting, such as a weak academic background, disengaged parents, or other socioeconomic factors, are exacerbated in an online course.

Huffman is understandably concerned about the effect of the school shutdown on kids from low-income families. Through quotes from education professionals or education think-tank pundits, he puts forth a speculative scenario that isn’t happening in most school districts:

“The lady next door has seven kids and no computers. The family up the street has no Internet. I’m afraid some families aren’t going to do anything because some families simply can’t do anything.”

I’m not aware of what’s happening in every school district or every community, but the districts I’m aware of are attempting to contact every parent to assess the resources available in the home and ensuring that students have what they need to participate in classes during the shutdown. Internet providers such as Spectrum are providing free internet to students stuck at home.

Another “flaw” in “homeschooling” Huffman cites is:

The risk is that in some schools next year, you are going to have a kid with parents who were able to provide high-quality supplemental instruction at home, sitting next to a kid who hasn’t received meaningful instruction since February.”

That scenario will absolutely happen. That scenario happens in some fashion on every single first day of school in every school across the country, where kids whose parents were able to provide high-quality supplemental instruction and camps over the summer will sit next to kids who haven’t received meaningful instruction all summer. It’s heartbreaking, and no one wants that to be the case. But it has zero to do with “homeschooling.”

To his credit, Huffman does list efforts undertaken by schools, teachers, and educational advocates across the country to make the best of our current educational reality. He would do well to adopt the attitude of researcher Susanna Loeb, who said, “Right now, virtual courses are allowing students to access lessons and exercises and interact with teachers in ways that would have been impossible if an epidemic had closed schools even a decade or two earlier. So we may be skeptical of online learning, but it is also time to embrace and improve it.”

What Huffman and his friends in the education establishment are really afraid of is that a generation of Americans will grow up knowing that they can live without government institutions for months and not only survive, but thrive.